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Herbal Pain Killer: Better Than Tylenol?

Did You Know...   that there's an aromatic herb that relieves the pain of tension headaches just as quickly as aspirin and over-the-counter analgesics, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches experienced by a vast cross-section of the population.  Statistics show that 95% of women and 90% of men have at least one headache per year, and approximately 1 out of every 6 people in America experience the agony of chronic tension headaches. 

As a result, most of us reach out for common over-the-counter headache medications, especially those containing acetaminophen, the most commonly used painkiller in the country today.  On average, 7.3 billion adult Tylenol tablets are consumed annually.

But take heed:  Each year, acetaminophen use causes 100,000 calls to poison control centers, 56,000 emergency room visits, 26,000 hospitalizations, and more than 450 deaths from liver failure alone.  Acetaminophen is a leading cause of acute liver failure, even at doses that are within the recommended range.

In May 2009, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration working group released a report urging stronger warnings and stricter dose limits for drugs that, like Tylenol, contain acetaminophen -- and hence may pose an increased risk of liver injury to those who use them improperly.

The ironic thing is that the use of acetaminophen may not be the most effective way to stop headaches.  Here's why:  Headache pain does not originate from inside the brain.  The brain is incapable of feeling pain because it contains no sensory nerves.  The pain actually comes from tension in the outer linings of the brain, the scalp and its blood vessels and muscles.  Common tension headaches occur when the face, neck and scalp tighten up, and that tightening is often induced by stress.

Since headaches originate from the outer surface of the head, peppermint oil has been used to alleviate the pain.  German research headed by Dr. Hartmut Gobel shows that rubbing peppermint oil on one's forehead is just as effective in relieving headaches as taking a headache medication like Tylenol.  

Researchers have long known that peppermint oil, whose main constituent is menthol, has an analgesic and cooling effect when applied on the skin.  Menthol calms and soothes the excited nerve fibers in the painful region and can quickly make the pain subside.

Historians report that Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, personal friend of the emperor Vespasian, and a writer and investigator of natural and geographic phenomena, recommended applying peppermint leaves to the forehead to treat headaches. 

In 1996, the leading headache researchers at the Neurological Clinic at Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany showed clinical proof that peppermint oil applied to the forehead indeed reduces headache pain just as effectively as the standard dose of 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen (or 2 tablets of Tylenol).  Dr. Hartmut Gobel's randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study also proved that peppermint oil is just as effective at relieving headaches as acetaminophen.

In addition to relieving headaches, peppermint oil also has other therapeutic uses:

  • Helps relieve gas, bloating, nausea, cramping and stomach upset
  • Muscle tension and pain relief - since it increases the blood flow to the injured area, it aids in healing as well
  • Helps alleviate stress
  • Helps alleviate motion sickness
  • Eases irritable bowel syndrome

Peppermint oil is available at Whole Foods and other health food stores.

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Herbs and Prescription Drug Conflicts

Many people seem to first learn about herbs from a friend or family member. Or they read something online or in a magazine, and they seem to think herbs are secret miracle medicines. So they proceed to start taking as many as they can, for anything they can think of.

The problem, though, is that while many herbs can help with multiple problems at the same time, they are not a cure-all. You can't take one herb for just anything, and there are certain herbs you shouldn't take unless they're needed. There are also many situations in which the actions of the herbs can be in conflict, or cause complications with, prescription medications your doctor may put you on.

That's why it's important to let you doctor know if you're taking herbal medicines for any reason. And if you doctor does not understand the effects of the herbs you're taking, you may need to explain it to him or her so they'll better understand the potential interactions of your herbs and the medicines they want to give you prescriptions for.

(By the way, if your doctor scoffs at your herb use, threatens you, or otherwise makes you feel low or stupid, it's time to fire him or her and get a better doctor!)

An excellent example of two things that shouldn't be mixed are ginseng and caffeine. Now, this might seem like a simple case of limiting your coffee or soda intake if you're taking a ginseng herbal supplement, and you're right. But it also comes into play if your doctor prescribes you certain allergy or diet medications too. These can interact badly with the ginseng because of the components and capabilities of each medicine.

Another example is taking goldenseal herbs while also taking insulin. Goldenseal is a natural source of insulin, so if you take it while also taking insulin injections, you could potentially overdose yourself without realizing it.

Yet another example is kelp mixed with a prescription diuretic or water pill. A diuretic is a medication that causes your body to release more urine, and kelp is a natural diuretic on its own. So taking kelp while also taking a prescription diuretic could cause you to become dehydrated, or have other related dangerous side effects and complications.

Some herbal and prescription medication combinations taken at the same time can be dangerous, while others end up just working against each other. When you have a chest cough, for instance, your doctor will often prescribe coughing medications that are designed to suppress your coughing. Some herbs used for chest colds however, work as expectorants -- which means they purposely try to help your body cough up the phlegm and mucus that's in your lungs so that you can heal faster.

So before you start using herbs for medicating yourself, be sure to learn as much as you can about what the herbs actually do, and how that might conflict with anything else you're taking -- prescription or over-the-counter.

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Herbal Remedies for Sore Throat, Congestion and Cough

There are many causes of  sore throats, chest congestion or coughs.  Such as a cold, flu, laryngitis, mouth breathing while sleeping, smoking, pollen or a number of other irritants.

Sage kills bacteria, and is very soothing to mucus membranes, as well it breaks up your congestion.  It can help eliminate that annoying cough that often accompanies a cold.

The next time you develop a sore throat , chest congestion or a cough try using the sage remedies below.  In a few days your throat or cough will be feeling better without the use of over the counter drugs.

Sage Gargle (for sore throats)

  1. Boil 1 cup of water.
  2. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of rubbed sage, 1/8 - tsp. of salt, and empty 2 capsules of Echinacea into the mix.   Echinacea is an anti-viral that also has a numbing effect.  (Don't buy Echinacea that's combined with other herbs.)
  3. Stir and let stand about 15 minutes.
  4. Stir again, and pour through a strainer (keep this) into another cup.
  5. Reheat as hot as you can tolerate.  You can test it on your lips.
  6. Gargle deeply into your throat, 2 or 3 times.

It's best not to eat or drink for a little while, so you don't dilute the effect.

Put the strained material back in the liquid, cover and store in the refrigerator.  You can reheat it for about 2 days.  Reheat in the microwave for 2 minutes on medium heat)

Remember to strain it before gargling!

Don't stop completely until at least a day after your symptoms subside.

Sage Steam (for chest congestion or cough)

  1. Take a big pot with 2" of water in it, add 2 Heaping Tablespoons of Rubbed Sage (right out of your spice rack, if it's not too old!)  
  2. If you're sick (cold or flu),  add 4 capsules of Echinacea for an extra anti-viral boost.  (Don't buy Echinacea that's combined with other herbs)
  3. Bring to a boil, stir, then simmer (med-low) for 15 minutes. (Stir occasionally)
  4. Bring the temp back up (almost) to a boil again. 

Now it's ready. 

  1. Put a towel over your head (to trap the steam), and your head over the pot.  Steam can burn, so be careful. 
  2. Inhale the steam deeply into your lungs (even if it makes you cough terribly) through your mouth, then your nose. 
  3. Do this as long as you can stand it (5 min.).

Set aside to use later.  I make a fresh pot each day that it's needed.

Have the tissues close!

For best results, steam 3-6 times a day while you're ill.  Obviously, you can back off as you begin to feel better.  Don't stop completely until at least a day after your symptoms subside.

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